Language, the Network Effect and ICT — a Short Introduction, Here and Now

I believe there is a common misunderstanding which clouds many people’s (lack of) understanding with respect to the “network effect”. This is, roughly: The difference between knowing a language and using a language. If you call me on the telephone and say “hello”, then it helps both of us if we agree on the meaning of that greeting. This has nothing to with how often you say “hello” and/or how many thousands or millions of people might say “hello”.

This is, perhaps, one of the main reasons why I stopped using twitter many years ago, and also why I stopped using Facebook more recently. If millions or even billions of people scream unintelligible noise and/or nonsense into a channel, then that channel breaks down due to a negative network effect.

Let me try to expand my explanation of this phenomenon with the help of an example. Everyone who understands basic English knows what the words “here” and “now” mean. However, probably only a quite small number of people will know what “deixis” refers to. This has nothing to do with actually using these words, but rather different levels of literacy normally correspond to different network effects.

This is the case whether people use telephones or computers, a pencil and paper or simply their own vocal apparatus. The common fallacy of thinking there might be a universally positive network effect from networked “information and communications technology” backfired bigtime when during a recent trip to the United States I became aware of how widespread the spam “robocaller” problem has become there.

The herd mentality of a huge mob does not deserve to be trusted any more than the careful analysis of an individual researcher. Indeed: The brute force of many mindless machines is less valuable (not more valuable) than the prospect of splendid isolation from the rampant rage of a wild, errant and fickle crowd of murmuring maniacs.

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The individualist manifesto vs. The anti-revolutionary social contract

To think or not to think — no. To write or not to write… — no. To create or not to create… — that’s wrong, too. I can come up with many ideas, but where do they come from — out of thin air?

There are some who often say: “You should live your own life, you should create your own narrative.” They are also wrong — it is not possible to invent myself or my story as being independent of the world around me. To do so would require me to step outside of any language community, to speak in something we might hypothetically call “my own language”. Yet the sun, the moon and stars, all plants and animals, the air we breathe, the water we drink, our entire lives are a matter of co-existence… we share a space with other objects and beings, and they are not only a part of our lives, they are a part of our being, and they also co-create the language we speak. We really cannot speak of anything which doesn’t exist (note that our imagination does exist), the existence of things leads us to observe them, think about them, interact with them, and also express our ideas about them using different kinds of language. We are no more free in our use of language than we are free to squint or not to squint when we look at a bright light — our squinting expresses something meaningful.

Yet there are nonetheless people who will preach individualism, self-discovery, self-actualization, self-fulfillment,… — a whole self-centered philosophy. A philosophy that is bogus and that simply denies obvious laws of nature.

Luckily, you are reading these words. You are trying to understand what I am trying to say — we are in this together. Night and day, the sun and the stars, all of life and death are also with us. We are all here together. The notion that we could be apart and isolated is also here, but it is ridiculous. 😉

That said, you do not need to agree with me. Neither do the Sun or other stars. Nor does William Shakespeare. They need not speak the same language, but they might.

I can try to convince you that my ideas are reasonable, but you are nonetheless free to think about different ideas. Perhaps you might like to think of ideas you would rather call “clouds”. I might not understand what you mean, precisely. Whatever you call “clouds” might not care at all what you think of them. Everyone is free to think as they like, but at the same time there is this curious feeling that we might be able to understand each other every now and then.

Mutual understanding feels good. It feels a whole lot better than any notion of individualism. It feels so great, that we spend most of our days expressing ideas to each other that we hope will increase this understanding.

We make agreements on a daily basis. We will call some things blue, other things green. We will restrict our use of terms like “ow” or “ouch” to mutually agreed upon contexts… — and likewise with almost everything else. We won’t smile when we’re unhappy (unless, perhaps, we are “acting” or “pretending”).

Why would anyone suggest that you might be happy if you would write your “own” narrative? They would be suggesting that you should try to do something which is impossible. 😐

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Neither Not at All Nor Completely

I often make fun of people who say things like “that is so true“… but I must admit: there appears to be nothing more true than the fact that throughout our entire existence we can experience nothing beyond some limits — the extremes of which are not included — namely: We must live our entire life spans in between “not at all” and “completely”. This is one thing my father has incessantly hammered home: There is no 100%. And likewise: There is no 0%. Of anything. Of any proposition. There are no absolutes. Somewhere in that list, I took over — because it is my father who still keeps searching for absolutes; I am the one who has given up on that idea.

Existence is a funny thing. We must always co-exist. If the other half doesn’t exist, then neither do we. We are always also everything that we are not.

I could keep going on entertaining you with philosophical aphorisms, but that is not what I wanted to write about. Firstly, I needed to say what I said first of all. Beyond that, I also want to talk about language again.

In a sense, language is that other thing. We use it. It’s a technology, just like phones or shoes or a hammer. We grab pieces of it, throw it around, bang it against walls, build other stuff with it… but it is no more a part of us than our own genes are. Oh, wait a minute… — It is a little bit a part of us, isn’t it? It is a little bit the air we breathe. Wait. What was that?

Wittgenstein was definitely onto something — well, not 100%, but pretty much. As I write these words, I give them meaning. As you read them, you also give them meaning (and I sure hope you give them more or less the same meaning as I do). We hammer away at expressions. We knock them around, sometimes we bend them out of shape, stretch them, give them new meanings. That’s life. 😀

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When Wiki Gets Wonky, It Quickly Turns Wrong Key

Today, I had an “Epic Fail” experience. 😐

There were a couple of things that came together in an unfortunate way, and before I knew it, I had created a train wreck like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve tried to figure out what happened, what went wrong, and also to explain the basic problem so perhaps you can be spared of the same kind of bad scene unraveling right before your eyes should you find yourself in a similar situation — which you probably won’t (but maybe “better safe than sorry”).

The reason why something like this probably won’t happen to you boils down to this: You are not me. Today I think I’ve learned something about myself — and in particular: something I want to try to change. Over the years, I have acquired a habit — in many cases, it can be quite useful… but in some cases it can lead to disastrous results. Simply: The habit is to make guesstimates and to go with the hunches rather than to wait to get more reliable information (a phrase that captures the spirit of such ball-park winging it is “the perfect is the enemy of the good”).

Now I understand that no one can ever be 100% certain of anything — that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about being 50% or 60% or maybe 70% certain, versus being 95% or perhaps even 99% certain. In many cases, being just pretty certain (as in: just a little bit certain) is good enough — but there are some cases where it should never suffice.

One such case is when talking with close personal friends about very private, personal matters. In such situations, you should never make strong, declarative statements based on little more than a hunch. This is not simply a matter of being polite — this is not about prefacing your remarks with “I think” or “I feel” — this is about formulating an expression that will help the person you care about… or not. If you are only 60% certain, then maybe it’s better if you just keep your mouth shut. If the matter is very important, maybe only open your mouth if you are 99% sure that it’s right and you are 99% sure that it will help.

Faster is not always better. Sometimes  a ball-park estimate is not good enough. And sometimes a mistake is simply inexcusable… and that is quite probably quite often the case if the issue has to do with sensitive issues.

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A Consistence Movement [First Essay]

I discovered several things today, each of which surprised me a little. Taken together, they surprised me a lot. Let me explain.

What started me down this path was considering how people want to make or create or build or maybe even simply buy things. People are often very goal oriented — along the lines of: “I will do this, this will result in that, that is good, I want that, if I have that, I will be happy, so I will do this to get that.” In part, we have been trained to think this way in order to function as consumers and producers of things… things that can be traded in the market economy. Objects — whether virtual or real. Often, our reality revolves around a sort of fetish… to procure objects. Whether a product or a service, we are all too easily overly focused on the procurement of objects… to the detriment of being happy, satisfied, in harmony with society or nature.

For example: A consumer may wish to procure a widget; A business may wish to sell widgets; and neither may think much about the relationships involved in this transaction, or what role such a widget will perform in the future. If the widget gets “used up”, does it then somehow magically become trash?

It’s quite easy to see that this is also somewhat of a philosophical question: Insofar as objects, relationships and such exist, it might not a very big leap to think about their existence and from that to develop some sort of existentialism… — but that would actually be a short-cut and would miss a very important point: Each of these things exist not only in and for themselves. They exist in an environment, they are each parts of the same universe, and in that respect they are also related. They do not really exist separately as much as they consist together. Indeed: Consistence coordinates many previous philosophical points of view (such as existentialism and also interdependence, relativism and environmentalism, sustainability and change, atomism and universalism, … and many more).

Consistence thrives on complexity, and there seem to be many parallels between this way of thinking with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Just as the roof of a building may be carried by many pillars, so too do life forms continue to consist even if one of the pillars of life crumble, break or fall.

This is a significant difference between the “consistence” and “consistency” — whereas consistency seems to be about the homogeneous constitution of a specific mass, consistence is more about the stratification of different parts across a larger whole, be that a community, a culture, a regional or global population, or across time and space in general.

Literally, consistence means “standing strong together”. This does not mean that the individual parts are the same. On the contrary: They may be very different, complementing each other, sticking together much in the same way that opposites attract.

Consistence does not build so much on promoting individual strengths as it succeeds by minimizing vulnerability to weaknesses. You might be reminded of the quote by Nietzsche which states: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. In this way, an infection, a virus or similar disease may be seen as promoting consistence.

Since the contexts of consistence are so wide and far-reaching, it is difficult to summarize this philosophy in one brief essay. We should revisit this approach many times, from different angles, and keep testing the usefulness of this concept time and time again.

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